Last week I was in some of the nastier parts of Jerusalem, and in case such a claim sounds like a self-serving boast let me quickly clarify that I was only there to do a bit of admin work for a nurse who had just been awarded a scholarship to study in Scotland by a client of mine and she needed a hand getting a visa. My trip was more about darg than danger or journalism, and let's face it, I also partly went there because it was snowing in my home in Edinburgh and the sun was shining in Jerusalem. Sometimes temptation is irresistible.
However, whilst I was there I tripped over a rather charming story about how Harry Potter had helped reduce tension between the Jews and Palestinians which I would like to share. But first a little context. The philanthropist who was paying for the nurse's trip to Scotland had also asked me to investigate whether the number of Christians in Bethlehem was in rapid decline. Now such research may seem like a waste of time until you evaluate a hopefully influential element of how Donald Trump's policy in Jerusalem will unfold – which is partly a reflection of public opinion in America.
At present my impression is that much of uniformed America, and possibly Trump himself, regards the frozen peace in Jerusalem as pretty much being a black and white issue with the wicked Muslims, in the shape of the Palestinians, determined to overthrow the noble Jews. His pre-election suggestion that one of the ways he was going to implement his foreign policy was to 'bomb the shit' out of certain of his enemies was particularly worrying.
You may believe that such a new American foreign policy rather gives support to the facetious sign recently seen outside a London restaurant: 'Americans only allowed in if accompanied by an adult'. That despicable joke is almost as ludicrous as the liberal evaluation so often proffered in Britain these days that all the Palestinians are sweet innocents who wouldn't dream of doing any harm, and that if only the wicked Jews were chased mercilessly into the sea by men with big sticks justice would be served and all would be peace thereafter. Trust me, anybody who makes a glib evaluation of the problems in the Middle East clearly hasn't been there.
My sponsor's position, which I endorse, is that if the fragile peace is to be upheld it would do no harm in publicising to evangelical America that there is a considerable Christian community in Palestine under threat and that if Trump does take a more aggressive attitude to the Palestinians then he is also attacking a partly Christian community. Just to expand on my sponsor's question, my four days in Jerusalem, where my research was largely undertaken through chatting up taxi drivers, revealed that there is indeed a drop in the number of Christians in Bethlehem, particularly from a cultural, as opposed to intellectual, perspective and particularly if you place the figures in line with the rapid expansion of other cultural groups in the years since 1948. The real issue is that they have declined as a percentage of the whole.
One source I spoke to (in this case a professor, not a taxi driver) projected that if you took an annual increase of 2.4% as being in line with other increases in population from other groups then the number of Christians in the broad geographical area of Israel and the West Bank since 1948 would be four times their present number, but I wasn't entirely convinced. The reasons for the decline of Christians in Bethlehem are complex, but should be seen in the light of the ancient tradition of the folk from Bethlehem migrating to family members living in places like Brazil and Chile, a tradition that might have started when they were under pressure from the Turks to enlist.
The Jews will tell you that the persecution of the Christians is all the Muslims' fault, the Muslims that it's the fault of the Jews, and the economists that the decline in tourism and other industries in Bethlehem is the real reason for the downturn, and that this latter influence has been very much as a result of the building of the security wall – and they are all to a certain extent correct.
Let me not for a second imply that any of the fanciful scenarios and broad perceptions that I define are closely related to the complex reality on the ground. All I wish to illustrate is that much of the problem in Jerusalem is supported by false news, the inability of the various opposing sides to mix, and intentional hype and lies from all sides. I'm just here to tell a few stories, and don't worry – we'll get to Harry Potter eventually.
Let me give you a couple of vignettes of how much false news there is in circulation in Jerusalem, albeit in polemics, to explore the issue. First example: On my flight over I was sitting next to a trainee Rabbi, aged early-20s, who came from New York where he was spending most of his time with his head down in religious study. He was called Miller, reasonably bright, and very well-mannered. He wore the uniform and radical hair style of the Orthodox Jew. I liked him. Over the four-hour flight he confessed that he had never heard of Scotland, England or even France, though he had heard of Germany. This from a man who might reasonably be seen as having had a postgraduate education.
He was delighted at Trump's election and even more delighted at the news that Trump's son-in-law was Jewish. When I told him that most of my visit would be spent in Bethlehem he was horrified that I should be so foolish as to risk my life associating with dangerous Muslims and when I told him that I would be largely working with very delightful Christians in one of the most peaceful universities I have ever visited, he seemed mystified. This from someone who now lives in Jerusalem. I imagine such a conversation must seem implausible to the reader, but let me assure you that my report of that conversation was verbatim, and that extreme ignorance of those living in the neighbouring bubbles in Jerusalem is not confined to the Jews.
Here's another polemic illustrating that point. Eight years ago I was asked to engineer a camping trip to Iona, a Hebridean island long-known as a place of reconciliation. The plan was that six Palestinian girls, all university graduates, would come over with six Jewish boys of much the same age and background and we would all sit around bonfires as the sun went down singing, perhaps, the wild rover and seeking our shared commonality. Probably a complete waste of time and money, possibly not. The risk was worth it.
Anyhow so I'm sitting with the girls in a coffee shop in Ramallah nailing down the travel details when one of them observes, with much giggling from the others, that it's just as well the boys on our proposed camp were not going to be Palestinian as they would just be spending all their energy on seducing them. When I observed that such was the human condition that I was sure the Jewish boys would have similar intentions a massive roar of animalistic repulsion went up from every girl present. Such was the suspicion of the Jews that they had dehumanised and desexualised the enemy. Understandably so as they seldom came in contact with them, even though they only lived a matter of minutes away from Jewish settlements.
Incidentally the trip never came off as the problems of them getting visas proved insuperable. Many of the politically-innocent girls in that group were quite literally imprisoned in the West Bank as they had arrived as children in the area without papers and were finding it impossible to get any kind of citizenship let alone the paperwork needed to get to Iona for the type of reconciliatory holiday that many in the Jewish, or indeed Palestinian, communities would find abhorrent.
So there's a few polemics, and this lack of hard truth is a reality that is reflected wherever you go in Jerusalem. Last week for further example I spent half an hour with a young former butcher from Golders Green, now working as a security guard at the Wailing Wall, who assured me that every single claim of injustice made by the Jews regarding the settlements was entirely without substance and that all the UN resolutions on the issue were driven by anti-Semitism. He was no fool, but again only party to the most ludicrously prejudiced and inaccurate sources of information.
Perhaps one of the most bizarre elements to the visiting Westerner of domestic life in Jerusalem is how so many of the Jewish community still adhere to the religious rule of not using any money on the Sabbath. Anxious to get a balanced perspective on the problems in Jerusalem I spent several hours in the King David Hotel on their Sabbath, a delightful experience involving such entertainments as groups of young men singing in harmony whilst holding hands and fat women in fur coats squabbling like cats in a sack. Sometimes spending time with the Jewish community in Jerusalem can be absolutely wonderful. Whilst freeloading on the luxurious sofas I was fed grape juice given to me by friendly Jews staying in the hotel, but was unable to reciprocate their kindness as the staff wouldn't accept my money on a Saturday. Which brings me at last to Harry Potter.
On my last night in Jerusalem I ended up in a radical pro-Palestinian bookshop that served very good coffee. There was radical conversation amongst the many young liberal American students that used the cafe for socialising which centred on whether the current divisions in America might be of benefit to the Palestinian cause as about half of America (those against Trump) would now be thinking that if Trump was now supporting Israel, the Palestinians should be supported. This, incidentally, is a belief which is also being held by some senior Israeli academics.
It was half-way through conversations on such speculations with the students when I noticed the framed piece of Jerusalem Post newsprint on the wall. It was from July 2007 and concerned an incident that had taken
place in that very book shop. It seemed that the son of the house, then a
book-consuming 16-year-old, had begged his book-selling father to get
hold of a crate of the soon-to-be released novels in the Harry Potter series so that he could be the first to lay his hands on a copy. Dad had obliged and very soon the word was circulating over security walls, down dusty vennels and in and out of synagogues and mosques in Jerusalem that one of the few places Harry Potter fans could get their hands on a hot-off-the-press copy was at the most radical of bookshops in the terrorist-plagued streets of East Jerusalem.
But the Jews had an even greater problem. The wretched book was due to be released on a Saturday, their Sabbath, the day they couldn't hand over any money, and so the poor souls had no option but to make two trips into enemy country. The first on the Friday, to exchange their money for a chit and then, at 5am, to return to the shop and mix, may God help us, with folk from all kinds of backgrounds in the queues to exchange their chit for the volumes.
My visit to the shop was 10 years later, but the memory of that day still brought laughter from the staff, particularly when I admitted that I not only lived down the road from J K Rowling and could assure the soon-laughing mob that she was a decent soul, and would be happy to post their private messages through her post box. Later on Googling the incident I came across an old posting that J K Rowling had refused to go along with a campaign to culturally isolate the Jewish community because of their treatment of the Palestinians. Full marks to her. Art can be the bridge for constructive change.
Just before I left the shop I asked the 26-year-old assistant manager, who turned out to be the boy in the story, what he would do if he was president of America: 'Stop providing the money to support the settlements' was his immediate reply.
'And what if private money from Jews all over the world continued to pour in?' was my response. 'That money would soon run out!' he replied. I took issue with the 'soon'. The thing that I found most intriguing was that he had obviously never been asked the question before. So many minds are fixed in Jerusalem. As I left the shop he called after me, 'Do you know the crazier it gets the more fiction we sell, and ever since Donald Trump was elected our sales of fiction have rocketed!'
Let me end my stories with a word of hope. Every one of those young and misinformed young people I spoke to had one thing in common, they all
possessed smart phones that were seldom out of their hands. Maybe, just
maybe, the ability of those folk to communicate around the world, circumventing borders, lies and hype will allow a little truth to come through and the horrific stalemate that has gripped Jerusalem for so many years will one day loosen.
The truth is that we humans are all a little lost and lonely and in need of tribes and comforting stories, and we have to learn that unthinking loyalty to causes and creeds that belittle others can be a bit daft. Mind you the internationalism of Jerusalem is a very old story. I once had a friend who wrote something that almost made me weep one night in Jerusalem. It was very late and I was eating my nightly camel kebab just beside Herod's Gate, just beside the bus station that some believe marks the place where Jesus was crucified when his words drifted into my head. I think they define the reason why my client, a Christian, had bothered to send me to Jerusalem, and why he was giving that nurse a break:
'I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles but on a cross between two thieves, on a town's garbage heap, at a crossroads so cosmopolitan that they had to write his title in Hebrew, Latin and Greek. It was the kind of place where cynics talk smut and curse and soldiers gamble, because it is what he died about and that is where Christians ought to be'.
Maybe my client is right. Maybe it is a pity that the numbers of those Christians are now declining so radically. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.